Estimated reading time: 13 minutes
The Great Depression in the United States lasted about a decade starting in 1929. The reasons and impacts have been well documented and you can get a good snapshot of what it was all about here.
The main impact was on employment leaving close to 25% of Americans out of work. It left many people homeless and even more people malnourished. Curiously, the cost of basic foodstuffs like milk, eggs, vegetables and meats remained high while deflation dominated the economy.
The combination of unemployment and high food prices for basic staples left many families struggling to make a meal. And that’s where things get interesting. People got creative and many learned for the first time to improvise with not only scarce ingredients, but leftovers and kitchen scraps.
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Waste Not, Want Not
Very little was wasted during the Great Depression. It was an environment that thrived on recycling and upcycling and that included food. Many things we would relegate to a compost heap from the kitchen found their way back into a pot for the next meal.
- Bones from beef, pork and chicken were gold and used to make stocks and soups. We pay a premium for bone broth at the grocery store, but during the Depression people made their own on a regular basis.
- Stale bread was never tossed out, and upcycled to make stuffing and bread crumbs for recipes like meat loaf and as a flour substitute.
- Vegetable peels, trims and root ends were saved and later added to soups (Scrappy soup) or chopped into slaws and even baked into pies.
- Potato peels were fried up crisp in oil or baked and salted bringing to the world the first potato skins.
- Buttermilk was the most affordable dairy product and some dairies saw it as a waste product of butter making and would give it away free. It became the basis for many baking recipes during the Depression as a result.
Substitution Became the New Cooking Rule
When staples like eggs, milk, and flour become scarce or simply unaffordable the resourceful cook has only one option: substitute. In some instances something would be added to a primary ingredient to stretch it. Here are some of the common recipe substitutions popular during the Depression and used to this day.
- Coffee – A substitute for coffee that was often used is chicory root. In some instances postum was added to the coffee to stretch it. Surprisingly, coffee was somewhat inexpensive and a regular breakfast recipe called for a cup of coffee poured over a slice of bread in a bowl.
- Meat – Beans, lentils and oats were often substituted for meat in a recipe particularly meatloaf. Maybe this is where the vegan lifestyle had its beginnings. Bread crumbs were used liberally with ground beef in hamburgers, meatloaf and meatballs.
- Eggs were available and many people raised their own chickens but for some the standard egg substitute for baking was a tablespoon of baking soda mixed with a tablespoon of vinegar. These two ingredients were usually added to the recipe as it was put together.
- Milk was expensive and a substitute made from powdered milk and cornmeal called “Milkorno” was often used in recipes calling for milk. Many people mixed it with water and drank it as well.
- Meatless sandwiches were common and the substitutes ranged from tomatoes and onions, to sandwiches simply made with ketchup or butter and sugar, and a new innovation for the time called a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
- Sweetbreads or innards found their way into more and more recipes as livers, kidneys, hearts and other animal organs continued to be the only low cost meat option for many.
- Lard especially bacon drippings were often used as a butter substitute on toast, pancakes or any other dish that called for butter on top.
- Rodents and other wild animals from squirrels to possums to wild rabbits often found their way to the table. In some of the more desperate cities people even ate rats.
- Stem to root was the rule for many vegetables. It’s a common dietary habit in many countries around the world to this day. What people didn’t appreciate during the Depression is that the stalks and leaves of many vegetables like cauliflower leaves and beet leaves and stems had significant nutritional value.
- Flour was priced out of reach of many but the ability to make flour from a variety of wild and domestic ingredients offered ideal substitutes.
- Wild foraging vegetables and fruits was a regular practice for those who lived in areas outside of cities. However, even urban areas presented possibilities from common weeds to the trees that lined the streets. Dandelion, plantain leaves and clover often made a salad, and acorns and black walnuts were highly prized.
- Breakfast for dinner was a common occurrence as breakfast staples like pancakes, waffles, hash browns and even sausages were cheaper options than the usual dinner fare.
- Sugar substitutes included honey, maple syrup, sorghum, molasses and even the leaves of the Stevia plant.
- Baking substitutions were a constant challenge given the price and scarcity of flour, eggs, sugar and milk but the result was a Depression cake without those ingredients called Wacky Cake. What’s amazing is that it actually tastes very good.
Surprising Recipes that Emerged During the Depression
Many of the meal combinations we enjoy today had their roots in creativity of home chefs who were forced to find new solutions to put food on the table. Here are some modern favorites that emerged out of desperation and need and are enjoyed today as a matter of course.
- Macaroni and cheese was developed by Kraft foods in 1937. It used a basic pasta staple called macaroni but combined it with a low-cost and relatively new invention: cheese powder. When we see those little envelopes of cheese in a box of macaroni we just figure that’s part of the product but in its time it was a surprising and welcome innovation.
- Johnnycakes had been around for a while but the popularity of this cornbread variation soared during the Depression as corn meal became the most affordable grain.
- Dandelion Salad has emerged as the new yuppie side dish. Its nutritional profile is actually remarkable but during the Depression many people had no choice but to eat their weeds. Little did they know that the nutritional benefits of a backyard salad could be so significant.
- Vinegar pie sounds terrible but it has all of the tart flavor and piquancy of the best key lime pie. The problem was that exotic fruits like limes were in short supply and key limes were simply unavailable. Vinegar was cheap and the wonderful flavor of this pie surprises most everyone who tries it.
- Water pie. Yes, you heard that right. There was a pie recipe during the Depression called water pie. Many people couldn’t afford milk or eggs to make a pie so water was the only substitute and it uses only a small amount of flour. Sugar steps up to fill in for what’s missing and the taste is another surprise to anyone who hears the name.
- Peanut Butter was always an obscure and expensive product reserved for the well-to-do. During the Depression peanut butter manufacturing increased and it became a common and meatless substitute on sandwiches. Peanut butter had entered the main stream. It had a high calorie count and was high in protein. Better yet, it was cheaper than meat. Something called a peanut butter and jelly sandwich soon followed. You can thank the Great Depression for that innovation.
- Potato skin chips were popular and common. Potatoes were still affordable and many home gardeners grew their own. But nothing was wasted during the Depression and any peeled potatoes soon found the peelings in oil for frying or in the oven. Salt was still inexpensive and salted and fried potato peels were often the only snack food.
- Meatloaf. Cheaper cuts of meat were often the only option for some family and it was typically ground up. But even then, there was often not enough to feed a family. The solution that really emerged during the Depression was to combine the ground beef with onions, bread crumbs from leftover, stale bread and anything else from chopped vegetable scraps to the occasional and vary rare egg. It was also topped with an obscure, cheap and rarely used tomato based product called “ketchup.”
- The Poor Man’s meal. Meatloaf was actually a treat that usually showed up on Sundays but the everyday meal with meat was often a combination of fried potatoes and chopped hot dogs called the Poor Man’s Meal. Hot dogs were invented in 1893 but were eaten occasionally. The Depression moved hot dogs to the top of the food chain as the only meat most people could afford and the combination of fried hot dogs and potatoes made for a common, everyday meal.
- Hoover Stew was another common, main-meal during the Depression. It consisted of macaroni, canned tomatoes, thinly sliced hot dogs, and canned corn or beans.
- Rice Pudding was a favorite desert and any rice leftover from a meal was quickly turned into rice pudding.
Many Foods were Scarce
The Depression affected everything including agriculture and food manufacturing. The result is that even if you could afford something it was often unavailable. If you think back to the pandemic you may recall the scarcity of some items.
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Complicating everything food related during the Depression was the dust bowl.
Across the 1930’s a drought affected farms across much of the southwest and Midwest. Farms were foreclosed and the dry topsoil was swept away by the prevailing winds. Agricultural output nosedived affecting both the price and availability of many common food crops.
The combination of unemployment; scarcity of many items and an unknown future is what motivated so many people to conserve and find creative ways to improvise and keep food on the table.
Many of us grew up eating food inspired by the Depression because of the influence of grandparents and parents who remember the recipes and grew up with them. Many of us grew up with those same meals not knowing they were foods and recipes driven by desperation. What kept them around is that some of them actually tasted really good.
Here are some classic Depression recipes that you may not have ever heard of or tried but continue to surprise to this day. The recipes are very basic and were always easy to make with few ingredients.
Dandelions know no boundaries and are as common in the city as they are in the countryside. They also have a nutritional profile greater than spinach or kale and best of all, they’re free.
All parts of the dandelion are edible but the leaves were often used to make a dandelion salad, although even the flowers could find their way into the bowl. The leaves can be bitter especially if they’re harvested after the plant sends up a flower stalk. It’s also best to avoid locations that may have been sprayed with lawn chemicals or close to roadsides exposed to exhaust and other things kicked up my traffic.
The recipe is simple and the leaves are well rinsed, chopped and topped with cheese or garlic. A dressing made from vinegar and oil was the standard topping during the Depression.
Herbert Hoover was President at the start of the Great Depression and was widely blamed for it, even though many of the factors that led to economic collapse occurred before his administration. Unfortunately for Hoover, many of the things emerging during the Depression were named for him from shanty towns called Hoovervilles to a survival recipe called Hoover Stew.
Hoover stew is basically a combination of cheap ingredients including elbow macaroni, canned tomatoes and beans and chopped hot dogs. Salt was the usual seasoning and garlic and herbs were sometimes added to enhance the flavor.
The macaroni noodles were cooked and added to a simmering pot of canned tomatoes, beans and chopped hot dogs and gently heated, salted and served.
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Poor Man’s Meal
The Poor Man’s meal was essentially a combination of chopped hot dogs and potatoes. Hot dogs were the cheapest meat available and potatoes were plentiful and also easy to grow. It was typically made in a skillet.
The unpeeled potatoes were cubed and added to a skillet with some oil and cooked until tender and a bit crisp. The chopped hot dogs were then added and all continued to cook until the hot dogs had warmed through and served.
Making the Most of It
It’s often said that when you lack resources you need to become resourceful. That was certainly true during the Great Depression and has also been true with other events from world wars to pandemics.
The next time you have the time to sit and talk with a parent or grandparent who lived during the Depression or even World War II, take some time to ask about what they ate. They may surprise you with some of the foods and you may start to understand for the first time why you had hot dogs with macaroni and cheese on the table so often.
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- 1 Large pot
- 16 ozs. Elbow Macaroni
- 2 15 oz. Cans of diced or stewed tomatoes with juice
- 15 ozs. Canned corn with juice
- 15 ozs. Cannellini beans with juice
- 8 Hot Dogs
- Bouillon cubes to taste
- Granulated garlic and powdered onion to taste
- Salt & pepper to taste
- Cook elbows for about half the time it says on the package. Drain but do not rinse.
- Add tomatoes, beans, and corn to pot you cooked the pasta in as well as whatever spices you want to use.
- Mix in pasta and hot dogs. The presenter just added them in cold, but I pan fried them first to give them some character.
- Add some water if needed. The idea here is to have the finished product resemble something like a stew but not so much water tha tit is like a soup. Also, you’ll want to have some liquid to help finish cooking the pasta.
- Simmer until heated throughout and pasta is done